Sunday, May 20, 2007

At the middle of the Earth

Quito, Ecuador -- This city lies along the volcanic spine of Ecuador at about 9,000 feet. At the moment it is a caldron of political activity as the new president, Rafael Correa, dismantles the congress and courts and other institutions to advance his agenda, which emulates that of Compañero Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. This was a demonstration by public employees.

Climbers like Cotopaxi volcano, which rises to about 19,000 feet. Its neighbor, Pichincha, looms right over Quito. Residents told us that a few years ago, the volcano rained ash on the city for eight days. Everything was covered with the grit. We went to the top of Pichincha to look down into the crater. Fog made just about everything invisible except for the plaques placed in memory of various tourists who got too close to the edge: "Aquí falleció Diego ....“, "Aquí falleció Humberto ....“, which is to say, “Here´s where Diego died...”, “Here´s where Humberto died...”

Bella Vista is a resort hideaway a couple hours outside of Quito, Ecuador, where we spent two days before heading off to the Galapagos Islands. It's in a cloud forest at about 7,000 feet. Iridescent hummingbirds with tails as long as a concert pianist's swarmed around the resort. They moved too fast for our digital camera's pokey processor to capture. We did see some Baltimore orioles, something we've never seen in Baltimore.

It's hard to see animals in the forest unless you have a guide along to help. The reptiles and mammals have camouflage and the birds hide. We were lucky later in our trip when we saw two caracara falcons sitting on fenceposts on the slopes of Pichincha.

One of the dancers in traditional dress performs at La Mitad del Mundo, the site that is supposed to mark the equator.

Cindy at Baños, which is famous for its active volcano, hot springs, waterfalls and streams.

The statue of the winged virgin overlooks Quito.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Galapagos sharks

Cindy and I saw these white-tip reef sharks on a trip to the Galapagos Islands this month. We felt no need to jump in and join them. There must have beeen ten of them sliding back and forth past each other in this channel. Nick White, our guide, said this is how they rest. A little later we went for a hike on one of the gorgeous unspoiled beaches and saw black-tip reef sharks riding the waves in and feeding in the shallows. Nick told us these sharks were "babies" and nothing to worry about. For some reason, it seemed perfectly natural a few minutes later to run into the surf down the beach and splash around in the waves. What were we thinking?

We did a lot of snorkeling in eight days in the islands. Young sea lions like to dart at you and zip away at the last second, which is enough to give you a heart attack. We saw no sharks while we were in the water. We were looking the other way when some in our group saw a Galapagos shark at a place called Kicker Rock. But there was some consolation on that dive. Some 15 feet below us, eight eagle rays lined up tip to tip like a squadron of fighter planes as they lazed along on the current. (Here's another white-tip.)

The Galapagos Islands are a possession of Ecuador and lie about 600 miles off the coast. They are relatively young volcanic islands, only about 800,000 to 5 million years old. Many of the species of animals and plants are unique in the world because they developed in isolation. There were 14 species of giant land tortoises unique to the islands, of which three have gone extinct from hunting and competition with introduced species (pigs, dogs, cats, goats and rats).

There are 13 species of finches that have squeezed into tiny ecological niches where they each specialize in a particular kind of food, and their beaks are shaped according to their specialty. The marine iguanas are unique as are the two species of land iguanas.

In the picture below, we're on the rim of Sierra Negra, an active volcano whose crater is 6 miles across.

Our hike up to the rim and down to a smaller cone that erupted in 2005 took us through an eerie landscape of twisted volcanic rocks and smooth lava flows. Lava sometimes forms tunnels when it hardens on top and the molten rock continues to flow through. One tunnel we went into was big enough to accommodate a subway train.

There are about 20,000 representatives of the species homo sapiens living on five of the islands, and about 100,000 others visit in seasonal migrations.

A New Yorker cartoon shows two dolphins, and one says to the other, "My dream is to swim with a middle-aged couple from Connecticut." That describes about half of the tourist market for the islands. Then there is a mix of Europeans, a few Australians and Kiwis, and young backpackers. Not a lot of Latin Americans.

We spent eight days traveling with this group and had a lot of fun with them. Guides Enrique and Nick are in the back. Our group included coincidentally another couple from Baltimore, two med students from New York City, four Brits, a German, a Canadian and Lonesome Larry (not pictured), a pulmonologist from New York. We stayed on four of the islands. Many tourists stay on cruise ships that carry anywhere from a dozen to more than a hundred passengers.

Frigate birds patrol the sky above the harbor.

We liked the crabs.